I look forward to this season for all of the family and religious reasons, but also for the musical gems that have added to the great Bluegrass and Country songbook. One of those musical gems is Beautiful Star of Bethlehem. I have included the first verse and then an account of where it was written.
Oh beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shining far through shadows dimmed
Giving the light for those who long have gone
Guiding the wise men on their way
Unto the place where Jesus lay
Oh beautiful star of Bethlehem shine on
“I recently was given a copy of the history of this particular song from a great pianist and dedicated ‘Hymn of the Week’ reader. It is not a very old song, but one written in 1938 by a Tennessee farmer. Robert Fisher operated a small dairy farm just south of Murfreesboro. He was a religious man and served as a deacon at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church. One summer afternoon, Mr. Fisher felt inspired to sit down and write the words to ‘Oh, Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.’ Although he was a farmer, he did not write this song sitting on his back porch overlooking a pastoral setting. He didn’t write the words sitting under a starry sky thinking about Christ’s Advent. No, he wrote the words inside his dairy barn while seated on a milk stool. His daughter later helped him compose the music to this song, and it has been recorded by several well-known artists, including the Judds, Patty Loveless, and Bill and Gloria Gaither.”
From Jeff Mowery in his blog, “Hymn of the Week”
I have to add the two places where I first heard it: the Stanley Brothers and Emmy Lou Harris.
Happy Holidays to all who read this.
When I was about 15 years old, I got a five-string banjo as a Christmas gift from my dad. Soon after that, somehow, my dad found a banjo teacher in south Buffalo. Bob Schneider. Bob played with several of the early bluegrass band here in Buffalo over the years, including a rather unique one that had members from both Canada and the U.S., Border City Bluegrass. Bob is 86 years young and lives in the Finger Lakes area of central New York State. I still keep in touch with Bob and decided to interview him for this monthly Roundup.
Bob Schneider Interview Dec. 2, 2022
MP (Mark Panfil): So how did you get started in playing banjo?
BS (Bob Schneider): I guess it was Larry Marshall who played with here in Buffalo that showed me my first banjo licks. That’s going back to about 1965. Then I talked with a guy in a music store in Lockport, N.Y. I said, ‘well, I picked a little banjo.’ He said “well, meet me over at such and such a bar in Lockport for a jam session.“ We became very good friends and that’s when I started jamming around Lockport, you know, the bars and the hotels up there. And there used to be a big jam at The Keg in Gasport every other week.
MP: What was your first banjo and where did you get it?
BS: My first banjo was one of them bakelite, Harmony banjos.
MP: Mine too.
BS: I had a Stellar guitar and I didn’t even have the money to buy that banjo. I heard some things by Scruggs and I went over to John Sedola’s music store on Ferry Street and I swapped that guitar. We looked in the book and I said I want one of those banjos with the little knob on the side of the neck. So he sent away, I think it was about $50.
Then I took that banjo and I became friends with this guy Don Moore up in Lockport. He took me around to all the bars to do jam sessions up there. Songs like “Down Yonder” and “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.” We went down to visit his family down in Pennsylvania and his brother had a tenor banjo under the bed. It had a nice pot (the drum section of the banjo) and I think I bought that banjo for 10 bucks. That was my first conversion. I took the neck off of my Harmony and put it on the pot from his tenor banjo. That’s when I began working on instruments, then it just snowballed from there. Then I had an L5 old arch-top Gibson guitar and I swapped it, for a Bacon banjo. Which really wasn’t too high quality of a banjo. Then finally in 1963, I bought my first Gibson RB 250. That thing was so fresh from the factory that when I put a capo on it, it left the imprint of the capo on the back of the neck.
MP: What was it like to learn back then?
BS: I could figure out melody but I says how the heck do you get these rolls in there, and it just came awful slow. I finally worked at it and worked at it and one time we were going to Pennsylvania and some guy showed me the square roll, you know that TITM roll. I kind of started out playing the melody with my index finger before I started bringing my thumb down to play the melody too. (Before this interview, Bob told me his first book was Pete Seeger‘s banjo book, “How to Play the Five String Banjo” 1962.)
MP: how did you get into playing with the guys in Border City Bluegrass?
BS: Kenny Bennett. And Steve Young. I was playing with Hal Kibler down in Wyoming County. I was playing in their country band for a few years and Kibler said there’s a jam at the guy‘s place named King down below Canesteo, NY. Steve Young and Kenny Bennett (Kenny was a West Virginia-style fiddler that lived up here back then and later played with Border City) were there. And Kenny said I got some guys would like to see you. That’s how I ended up going up to meet the guys in Border City. Kenny was already connected with them. He was playing fiddle with them. (The core members of Border City were three brothers from Niagara Falls, Ont., Dennis McCarthy on upright bass, Jerry McCarthy on dobro, Brian McCarthy on lead vocals and acoustic guitar and Mike Manard on mandolin) Ord Hoffner was their banjo player and I think he took off to go to Florida or somewhere and they needed a banjo player. I became it. Ord also had a little group with Stan Puffer- guitar, Kenny Bennett- fiddle and John Renne – bass called Grass Act.
MP: Besides Border City and Poplar Ridge, who else did you play with? What years did you play with Poplar Ridge?
BS: Back in 1976, I was with three groups, Queen City Cut Ups with Dave and Rose Haney. I was just playing dobro with them. And then it was Dick Menn and Dave Soto in Poplar Ridge. We had about five bluegrass bands back in those days playing at Pandee’s. Keith Woodin on fiddle used to sing “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road”!
Dave and Rose Haney moved down to North Carolina, then Alabama ,and then up to New Jersey, and then after he retired, back down to North Carolina. They have a place down there on the New River in the western part of North Carolina.
MP: Yeah when Dave was in Buffalo, we got to see Joe Val a little bit more often too
BS: Yeah, I think I got to play on the last show that Joe Val did in Keene, N.H. Border City was playing on that show. It was one of the nicest festivals I’ve ever been in my life. All good traditional bands like Larry Sparks and Joe Val. We had a nice Dobro workshop with Mike Manion. Mike Manion was about the best
MP: Who was Mike Manion?
BS: Josh Graves and Kenny Baker invited Mike up to play with them and it’s on YouTube. Mike kind of gave me a start on the dobro. I learned a lot from him. Beautiful country, traditional kind of playing. It was wonderful. He kind of got me started on dobro. He got me fired up
MP: I had a hard time switching over from Banjo to Dobro when I first started on dobro.
BS: Yeah, how did you end up playing dobro? You were taking banjo lessons and then you started doing dobro?
MP: I was playing with a band called the Hill Brothers with Jerry Raven and Don Hackett and I was playing mostly banjo with them. I figured I needed something that would work in slow songs a little bit better and I got myself a dobro and started learning from the Mike Auldridge book. Do you remember that one? Mike Aldridge was a graphic artist, And he drew pictures of where you would move on the front board you would go picture by picture. You would have to follow along on the recorded version because he always told you what album it was recording on. That’s how I learned dobro.
BS: Yeah, I’ve got that book. (Bob’s wife, Janice interjected here: yeah there’s nobody like Mike Aldridge!)
BS: Yeah, he was really amazing. But Josh Graves had that blues that just came out of nowhere every once in a while!
MP: Yeah, I read a book called “Bluegrass Bluesman-A Memoir by Josh,” about how Josh Graves was more of a blues guitar player before he started playing with Flatt & Scruggs. His style became a blend of blues and Earl Scruggs banjo licks being played on the dobro.
BS: If you wanna watch a good YouTube from Josh, watch Josh Graves’ dobro workshop in Waldo, Florida. He plays some nice stuff on that. Just him and a guy on the guitar (Josh Graves played with Flatt & Scruggs from 1955 to 1974; when he left Flatt & Scruggs, he went out in his solo career with Kenny Baker, the fiddler from Bill Monroe, just a duo with a third member every once in a while)
BS: Oh, I watch a lot of stuff on YouTube. I watched this guy Jason Skinner on YouTube playing banjo and he really explains things well. I enjoy it. And it’s all for free.
MP: If you were going to give advice to new players, what kind of advice would you give them?
BS: Start with the old masters, that’s where to start. The real bread and butter, then find somebody who can play some halfway decent rhythm guitar to help you keep your timing.
MP: Bob, back in the day when you were playing with Border City and Poplar Ridge, was anybody writing original songs for the bands?
BS: No, not that I remembered. We were all doing songs that we liked by the traditional artists. We were doing the old stuff. In fact, Border City wanted to do a song and I said, ‘If you do that song, I quit.’ I think it was “Rose Colored Glasses” (we both laughed).
MP: Was it tough to get over the bridge to play in Canada in those days?
BS: Once in a while. They give me a little static. You know in those days you mentioned you’re going to a festival and right away, they’re looking for drugs. But I never was really stopped.
I think the first festival Border City played was in 1976. It was at a festival just the other side of the Lewiston Bridge in Canada. That’s the festival where my banjo got stolen. There was Lester Flatt playing there and the Stoneman Family Band. I came off the stage when I noticed it was gone, Lester Flatt was walking in the other direction. I almost knocked him down I was going so fast!
MP: Did you ever get your banjo back
BS: Yeah, a year later I found it myself. I put an article in Bluegrass Unlimited and everything, but I found it at a jam at the Carlyle bluegrass festival in Canada backstage. I’m looking at a guy across from me and I thought, “That guy’s got my Banjo.” I was telling the guys in my band, and they said all banjos look alike, and I said, “No, they don’t.” The neck inlays were unique to this banjo. I just couldn’t go up to him and say hey that’s my banjo. I had to go all the way back to Buffalo and get the magazine with the article with the serial number on it. I got a hold of a security guy. He went over with the serial number in the magazine. He said I wanna see that banjo. He took the back off the banjo and he brought it back to me and said here’s your banjo. The guy said he bought it at a music store in Wingham, Ont. When it was stolen, my banjo was clear on the other side of the dressing room, so he had to walk by some much more expensive instruments than mine to take mine. Lester Flatt’s guitar was in there, too.
MP: You sure played with a lot of folks through the years in the Buffalo area. What were your favorite songs to play back then?
BS: I guess the instrumentals. I would play “John Hardy” and I would play “Home Sweet Home” in D tuning. People always got a kick out of that.
MP: So what banjo are you playing now?
BS: Playing one that I got from T.J. Doerfel. I think it’s a Florentine. It’s a real nice banjo. I think T.J. got it from Mike Tweedy (a very highly respected banjo builder from right here in Buffalo).
We ended our interview right about here. At 86 years young, Bob dedicates his time to rebuilding antique clocks and staying as active as he and his wife, Janice, can in their church in Farmington. He is looking for donations of special tools for the clocks he repairs, including a spring winder and a beat amplifier. A special thanks to Bob and Janice Schneider for spending some time with me on the phone.
Upcoming Bluegrass Shows
On Sunday, December 4, 2022, Creek Bend will be presenting the first Bluegrass and Country Christmas Concert at the Hollywood Theater in Gowanda.
They have put together a joyous program with old-time songs mixed with newer and original holiday compositions. “Christmas Time’s a Coming” and “Footprints in the Snow” by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, along with “Mary Did You Know” by Kenny Rogers and “White Christmas” are some of the songs they will play that afternoon. The concert will be held in Gowanda’s historic Hollywood theater, which has been recently restored. Join Rich Schaefer, bass and vocals; Sally Schaefer, fiddle, mandolin and vocals; Chris Panfil, acoustic guitar, fiddle and vocals; and Mark Panfil, banjo, dobro and vocals as they bring in the Christmas season in their own unique way.
The show is family friendly, free and on a Sunday that the Bills are off.
On Saturday, December 17 at 7:30 p.m. the Punch Brothers and Bela Fleck’s Bluegrass Heart bands will play at the University of Buffalo’s Center for the Arts. The band of virtuosi that comprise Punch Brothers has spent more than a decade changing the face of acoustic music, stretching the limitations of their instruments and influencing a generation of young musicians, some of whom will appear with Fleck as part of his set based on his 2022 Best Bluegrass Grammy-winning album “My Bluegrass Heart.” Beyond the baker’s dozen of Grammy Awards and Genius Grants between them, their collective skills bring worldly rhythms and soulful jams to the stage.
Punch Brothers are mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjoist Noam Pikelny and violinist Gabe Witcher. Their accolades include a Grammy for Best Folk Album for their 2018 release, “All Ashore,” and praise from the media, including the Washington Post, which said, “With enthusiasm and experimentation, Punch Brothers take bluegrass to its next evolutionary stage, drawing equal inspiration from the brain and the heart.”
Over the last four decades, Fleck has made a point of boldly going where no banjo player has gone before, a musical journey that has earned him 15 Grammys in nine different fields, including Country, Pop, Jazz, Instrumental, Classical and World Music. But his roots are in bluegrass, and that’s where he returns with his first bluegrass tour in 24 years, “My Bluegrass Heart.”
“My Bluegrass Heart” is the third chapter of a trilogy which began with the 1988 album, “Drive,” and continued in 1991 with “The Bluegrass Sessions.” The project features a who’s who of some of the greatest instrumentalists in bluegrass music’s history alongside some of the best of the new generation of players.
Concerts in upcoming months
Greensky Bluegrass Band, Thursday, Jan. 12, at the Town Ball Room in Buffalo.
Danny Paisley and Southern Grass are coming to the West Falls Center for he Arts on Saturday, May 20, at 7 p.m. This amazing bluegrass band is a very special treat for lovers of the traditional side of bluegrass music. More on this concert as we get closer to May.
As the weather gets colder, live music flourishes in our area. Jams are great places to be. Check out the Bennington Lanes monthly bluegrass jam on every second Sunday of the month starting at 2 p.m.
If you are giving or get a bluegrass instrument for Christmas or Hanukkah, a great place to find local teachers is www.BuffaloBluegrass.com
Hope to see you out at a jam or concert or just the local music bar. Have a very Happy Holiday season and, as always, Keep on Pickin’.